AFT Blog # 29: Pope

The Pope Throws Us a Crumb

David Rand

In a recent (May 22nd, 2013) declaration reported by Vatican Radio, Pope Francis stated that anyone can do good, not just Catholics, even atheists. The pope’s words can even be interpreted to mean that redemption is available to atheists, for “The Lord has redeemed everyone with his blood, not only Catholics, even the atheists, so it is the duty of everyone to do good. To do good is not a question of faith; it is an identity card that God has given to all by creating us in His image and He does good to all – always.”

A cunning move

This is clearly a clever move on the part of Francis to make such a dexterous declaration which cannot fail to impress the casual listener. In the current context, with the Church embroiled in scandals which are doing enormous damage to its prestige and where religious violence (principally, but not exclusively, Muslim) is increasingly apparent, an urbane declaration of openness and promotion of peace sounds very fine. But perhaps we can be forgiven for remaining somewhat sceptical when we hear the pope denounce “killing in the name of God” given the 2000-year history of Catholic obscurantism including numerous cases of killings which were legitimized by Christian mythology. But better late than never.

Anti-atheist prejudice, based on the identification of atheism with immorality or amorality, is an integral part of every monotheistic ideology, including of course Christianity. Let us not forget that this same Pope Francis (under his real name Bergoglio) penned, in the 1970s, the statement of founding principles of the Université del Salvador, the first of which is the struggle against atheism.

But over the last few years, atheists have become more visible, so that the falsehood of that equation has also become increasingly obvious. Given that irrationality is an inevitable concomitant of supernatural religion, that has not stopped many Christians from continuing to propagate the prejudice. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, with its new pope at the helm, cannot afford to appear completely intransigent about its irrational tenets. It needs to touch up its image a little.

The decoy of theistic evolutionism

It is enlightening to recognize the parallels between Francis’ recent declaration and that made by Pope John-Paul II in an address before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996. John-Paul admitted that evolution is more than just an hypothesis as it has achieved scientific consensus. This acceptance of evolution by the head of the Catholic Church was welcomed with enthusiasm – and naïveté – by many scientists, especially those fighting against creationism which is so popular among fundamentalist Protestants and among Muslims. But in the same speech, John-Paul also rejected any materialist theory which posits mind as emerging from living matter, and he did not repudiate the theory of ensoulment (insertion by god of the soul into man) put forward by Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950.

Thus, John-Paul gave the impression of having accepted a major element of modern science, while at the same time preserving the essential core of Catholic dogma which is incompatible with that science.

Damage control

Pope Francis’ recent declaration must be seen in the same light. While propagating an image of openness towards the diversity of beliefs and non-belief, this new pope fully preserves the essential doctrine of his Church. For, according to his statement, it is “God” – the Christian god of course, the god of whom he claims to be the exclusive legitimate spokesperson on earth – who graciously extends this favour to everyone including atheists. It is the prince of the Church who delivers to us the good news of this generous act of recognizing the potential for good in non-Catholics. Indeed, the wellspring of this goodness from which we may all drink is found only in this god, in whose image we are, according to the Church, all made. The exclusive moral authority of the pope is in no way threatened. On the contrary…

And just as John-Paul’s declaration succeeded very well in impressing a wide public, including many non-Catholics and even scientists, I predict, without the aid of a crystal ball, that Francis’ declaration will meet with similar success. It will be foolishly welcomed by many with an appalling display of complacency and naïveté.

Achieving the impossible

It is with great irony that we read, at the end of the pope’s address of May 22nd, that that date was the feast of St. Rita, Patron of Impossible Things. It is indeed impossible to fit the square peg of fantastical Catholic dogma into the round hole of modern science. Nevertheless, Francis has given it a good shot, performing a clever sleight-of-hand giving the illusion of it being possible!

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